"Conscience" is likely one of the most abused words in the English language. All sorts of moral wrongdoings and efforts to escape moral scrutiny are justified in the name of "conscience."
This is not a new phenomena. John Henry Newman, writing 125 years ago, deplored the same tendency in his day. Conscience, he said, "becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them.
"Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self will" (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).
Ironically today, some even invoke Newman's name in support of the subjectivism to which he was so opposed. Poor man must be turning in his grave. (The same might be said for the fathers of the Second Vatican Council whose teachings on conscience and religious liberty are likewise often abused.)
If the interior self is the creator of moral right and wrong, rather than its obedient servant, then we have no basis for criticism of even the most horrific actions. The Holocaust, Hiroshima, the abortion slaughter and the Killing Fields of Cambodia are perhaps all the result of moral agents following their "consciences."
Of course, what we ought to say is that the perpetrators of these atrocities were people who did not follow their consciences or whose consciences were very badly formed. And if that is the case then it implies that there are some objective moral standards which ought to underlie the judgments of conscience. What becomes most important and interesting then is not the counterfeit conscience which sets itself above all moral law, but rather the moral law itself and how it relates to conscience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican II, begins this brief section by stating "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey" (no. 1776). Conscience is subjective in this sense -- it is each person's awareness of moral truth.
However, we do not make this law which is in our hearts; we discover it. Then, through practical discernment, we apply that law to given circumstances. Finally, we make a "judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed" (no. 1780).
We ought to form our consciences properly so that our moral judgments will always be true. But whether our judgment is correct or not, we should always follow the judgment of conscience. Such a judgment can be mistaken but if it is our best judgment then we will not know, at that point, that it is wrong.
When someone comes to us seeking to learn what the church teaches on a particular moral issue, we do her a grave disservice by simply telling her to follow her conscience. She is admitting that her conscience is not well formed on this point and is seeking educated advice which will help to form it. To say only "Follow your conscience" is to say, in effect, "There are no laws, make up your own."
But there are moral laws. And as Pope John Paul has stated, each person has a grave moral obligation "to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known" (The Splendor of Truth, 34). Conscience is a witness that these moral truths are not something imposed on us from the outside. Unlike the dictates of social conformity, they are a law inscribed in our hearts by God. Following them leads not to a life of repression, but to the full flourishing of the human person.
Following the moral law also leads to the flourishing of society. Subjectivism and the denial of objective moral truth is also the denial of any hope for social justice and any basis for social criticism. Ultimately, it is the most politically reactionary stand there is. For the true subjectivist, every action is above criticism and everything will remain the way it is.
Conscience, properly formed by the moral law, is the greatest hope for us as individuals. It is also the only real hope for positive social change. We have a duty to ourselves and to society to understand what conscience is and form our consciences as best we can.
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